Museums

This Museum Kills Fascists

by Allison Meier on June 27, 2013

Woody Guthrie Center (all photographs by the author for Hyperallergic unless indicated)

Woody Guthrie Center (all photographs by the author for Hyperallergic unless indicated)

Is this land really made for you and me? That was the original tone of doubt at the end of Woody Guthrie’s classic folk anthem “This Land Is Your Land,” and now anyone can see its original lyrics exhibited below a halo of illuminated guitars in the new Woody Guthrie Center.

Woody Guthrie (photograph by Al Aumuller, courtesy Library of Congress)

Woody Guthrie (photograph by Al Aumuller, courtesy Library of Congress)

The museum and archives opened April 27 in Tulsa, Oklahoma. While Guthrie’s music is very much a presence, it’s really Guthrie as a person, and his intense support of working people and their strife, along with a love of the American country he spent his life traveling, that’s made manifest. On the little piece of paper with the neatly handwritten lyrics, you can see the original refrain of “God blessed America for me” (as a response to the bombastic Irving Berlin “God Bless America”) crossed out for “This land was made for you and me.” While it’s a song you imagine everyone swaying and holding hands to as an alternative national anthem of unity, it’s really about Guthrie’s own journey and how he spent his whole life advocating for the downtrodden. He wrote the song after traveling by road and rail from California to New York, seeing both the bad and the good. And in that original last verse he wrote:

One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple
By the Relief Office I saw my people —
As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if
This land was made for you and me.

Guthrie’s guitar always displayed the phrase: “This Machine Kills Fascists.” A manifesto of his belief in music. Yet it’s that activism that has caused Guthrie and his homestate of Oklahoma to have a complex relationship. In the museum, videos of Occupy Wall Street as an echo of Guthrie’s beliefs play alongside displays that recount Guthrie’s childhood in Okemah, Oklahoma, where he once was horrified to find out that his father had participated in a lynching. (The appalling crime long haunted Guthrie, and his “Hangknot, Slipknot” song was in part a response to those kinds of atrocities.)

I also have something of a complicated feeling for Oklahoma, where it will always be the home where I was raised, but the deep-rooted, often hateful conservatism that seems coiled into the roots of the state has kept me from keeping it as my current residence. However, while it’s one of the reddest of the red states, there are driven people like Guthrie who turn those experiences into messages that a whole country can embrace.

The reconstructed front of Woody Guthrie's Okemah home in the Okfuskee County Historical Society

The reconstructed front of Woody Guthrie’s Okemah home in the Okemah Historical Society

While recently visiting Oklahoma, before I saw the new museum, I stopped in Guthrie’s hometown of Okemah, where a broad, sloping road lined with a rather impressive small cinema palace and stately brick buildings, hints at its oil boomtown past. But it is the past, and it was the past even when Guthrie was growing up and the prosperity faded and the Dust Bowl moved in. He ended up in the very worst of it in Pampa, Texas on April 14, 1935 for what’s known as Black Sunday, when a dark storm of blinding dust consumed the land. The experience of the trials of those trying to survive in the dust clouds and those taking the road for better hopes in California infused his first commercial album, Dust Bowl Ballads, in 1940.

Newspaper in the Okemah Historical Society in Okemah, Oklahoma

Newspaper in the Okemah Historical Society in Okemah, Oklahoma

In the Okemah Historical Society on Okemah’s main street, alongside its collection of historic town curios — like a rather badly taxidermied owl and some fascinating military memorabilia from World War II — you can find the whole front of his childhood home rebuilt. The house itself unfortunately fell into such disrepair that it no longer stands. (This Land Press has an excellent article on the man who tried to save it, but found little support in the town.) You can also find newspaper clippings that suggest the uneasy feeling of Okemah to their native legend, like a yellowed headline stating “Okemah Recognizes Controversial Son.”

Yet now Okemah hosts a yearly Woody Guthrie Folk Festival on his birthday in July, and even though one man in the Woody Guthrie Center muttered “well, he’s still a Communist” after the energetic museum intro video, Guthrie seems to have found a home in the state. However, it was as much the memory of his mother that got the archives moved from Mt. Kisco, New York, to Tulsa, after her grave was found from when she died a patient at the State Hospital for the Insane. She had suffered from Huntington’s Disease, just as Guthrie did in the last years of his life, both wracked by the then-untreatable illness that slowly and terribly degenerates the brain. It was from the Brooklyn State Hospital in New York where folk musicians like Bob Dylan, who would be hugely influenced by Guthrie, met their idol.

Woody Guthrie Center (photograph by Shane Brown, courtesy Woody Guthrie Center)

Woody Guthrie Center (photograph by Shane Brown, courtesy Woody Guthrie Center)

Woody Guthrie Center (photograph by Shane Brown, courtesy Woody Guthrie Center)

Woody Guthrie Center (photograph by Shane Brown, courtesy Woody Guthrie Center)

Nearly any musician whose songs are fueled by a social consciousness has likely studied some of the thousands of Guthrie’s songs, and you start to see him everywhere. I’d never considered Jeff Mangum of Neutral Milk Hotel’s lone man with a guitar in a plaid shirt and newsboy hat as being a Guthrie tribute until they seemed to have that exact shirt on the display in the museum. And of course there’s Bruce Springsteen with his ballads for the common man, along with Joe Strummer with the Clash and Ani DiFranco and their activism. You can see clips of many of these influenced musicians performing in the museum. When he died at the age of 55 in 1967 it seemed like his light didn’t disappear after his ashes were scattered at Coney Island, but that they dispersed through every corner of music to give a voice to those who have none, and slay some fascist feelings with progressive activism.

Woody Guthrie mural in Okemah, Oklahoma

Woody Guthrie mural in Okemah, Oklahoma

The Woody Guthrie Center (102 East Brady Street) is now open in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

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